We see what we expect to see

Recent research in brain science is uncovering an exciting idea: our brains do more than just process what we see and hear. They're constantly predicting what's going to happen next, influencing how we experience things which can lead to cognitive biases in perception. This new understanding is changing how we think about our brains. Instead of just receiving information from the outside world, our brains are actively involved in shaping our perceptions and experiences based on these predictions.

Researchers have long been exploring how our brains interpret other people's actions. They found that observing someone else's actions activates similar areas in the brain as when we perform those actions. This was thought to follow a specific sequence: first, the action is visually processed, then the brain's parietal and premotor areas involved when performing actions are engaged. This belief stemmed from studies observing brain activity in humans and monkeys performing simple, isolated actions, like picking up a knife. However, in real life, actions are typically part of a sequence with a specific goal, such as preparing breakfast. This challenges the understanding of how our brains process complex, goal-oriented actions.

"It is as if they stopped to see with their eyes, and started to see what they would have done themselves."

In this research, scientists employed intracranial EEG to observe brain functions in individuals with epilepsy. This method entailed embedding electrodes directly into the brains of these patients, who were already undergoing brain surgery. The subjects were shown videos depicting routine activities, such as making breakfast or folding clothes, either in their usual sequence or shuffled. When the participants viewed videos with a scrambled, unpredictable sequence, their brains responded as anticipated: the visual cortex, responsible for processing sight, interacted with the parietal and premotor cortices, which are involved in action control. Conversely, when the videos were of predictable, everyday tasks like breakfast preparation, a significant shift occurred in brain activity. The regions of the brain associated with planning our actions took a more dominant role, diminishing the involvement of the visual cortex.

We perceive the world based on our brain's predictions.

Their research adds to the growing belief in neuroscience that our brain isn't just reacting to sensory inputs. Rather, our brain is always making predictions about what will happen next. This means we perceive the world based on our internal predictions, not just on external events. We not only see what we expect to see, we also hear what we expect to hear.

Predictive processing is a fundamental aspect of brain function that impacts perception, learning, social interaction, and mental health. While it generally enhances cognitive efficiency and adaptability, it can also lead to biases and distortions in perception and cognition, leading to cognitive biases and misunderstandings. 

How can we change our brain's predictions? 
  • Awareness that what we see and hear may not be accurate is key. 
  • We can analyze our reactions to people and events to bring some of our unconscious perceptions to conscious awareness.
  • We can become aware of our cognitive biases: "People often lack the motivation to monitor their decision-making processes. Moreover, even when people are motivated, attaining accurate awareness of their decision processes is a difficult task. The best strategy for reducing such biases would be to control one’s exposure to biasing information in the first place."
  • We can let some time pass before we make a decision on what we see or hear. This will allow us time to evaluate whether our perception was accurate.

Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., Valdesolo, P., & Kassam, K. S. (2015). Emotion and Decision Making. Annual Review of Psychology66(1), 799–823. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115043

Qin, C., Michon, F., Onuki, Y., Fries, P., Gazzola, V., & Keysers, C. (2023). Predictability alters information flow during action observation in human electrocorticographic activity. Cell Reports, 42(11), 113432. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2023.113432

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